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WASHINGTON – All season the Washington Capitals have thrived after losses and in the third period. Fittingly, they earned the official distinction as the top regular season team in the NHL by doing what they do best.
The Capitals dominated the third period to beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-1 Monday night and clinch the Presidents' Trophy and home-ice advantage throughout the Stanley Cup playoffs. A three-goal third period allowed them to remain the only team without consecutive regulation losses, as much a testament to their season-long success as anything.
"Third period is usually our strength, and it was tonight," said goaltender Braden Holtby, who downplayed winning the Presidents' Trophy because it felt like such inevitability. "We've known for a while that we were going to get it, just mathematically it was going to happen, so it's not a surprise. It's just one of those things that it shows we've been doing good things all year and working hard."
It's the second Presidents' Trophy in franchise history. Six players remain from the group that won it in 2009-10, when the Capitals lost in the first round to the Montreal Canadiens.
That defeat and other recent playoff exits tempered the joy about the accomplishment. Defenseman Matt Niskanen said players weren't exactly spraying champagne around in the locker room after beating the Blue Jackets.
But the Capitals were proud of their showing against Columbus, which included 17 shots in the third period to the Blue Jackets' six.
"It's been a while since we really had a good effort," said forward Tom Wilson, who scored the winner 3:46 into the third. "It's not the best hockey club over there. We want to be playing our best hockey against other kind of best teams around the league."
Wilson credited the Blue Jackets for challenging the Capitals most of the night. After Justin Williams scored Washington's first 5-on-5 goal in over 184 minutes in the first period, Cam Atkinson took advantage of a turnover by Dmitry Orlov to tie it at 1 late in the first period.
Columbus pushed and didn't look like a team playing out the string. It fell victim to a bad break when Cody Goloubef's stick broke on the play that led to Wilson's goal. Penalties were also a problem for the Blue Jackets, including Brandon Dubinsky's goaltender interference that paved the way for T.J. Oshie's insurance goal later in the third.
"You can't take five against them," coach John Tortorella said. "I know the last one with Duby, Holtby looked like he was shot. I think it at least should be evened up there. But we're not going to complain about penalties."
Tortorella knows the Capitals well from four playoff series against them while coaching the New York Rangers. On paper this team is better than the previous versions he faced, and Tortorella understands it's difficult to win games like this when making mistakes.
"Against a team like that, we have to make more out of our opportunities offensively," Tortorella said. "Against that team, because they capitalize on their chances, that was the most disappointing part, was I just felt we had some chances to create more offense and it died."
The Capitals' offense, particularly in the third period, is alive and well. With goals by Wilson, Oshie on the power play and Nicklas Backstrom with an empty net, their 92 scores in the third period lead the NHL.
"That's our game plan every night is to set it up as the game goes on to wear out their team," said Holtby, who made 21 saves to earn his 46th victory that moved him two shy of Martin Brodeur's single-season record. "It seems to be working."
A lot of things are working for the Capitals, even if players acknowledge the past couple of months haven't featured their sharpest hockey with almost no pressure on them. The real pressure comes in the playoffs.
It's now up to the Capitals to fine-tune their play for when the games really matter. The Presidents' Trophy may not mean much to a lot of players, but it could be meaningful in April, May and maybe even June.
"I think we can look at it that if we play great hockey, we can be the best team in the league," Oshie said. "It's a long season to be the best team for 82 games. That's special and that's something to be proud of and hopefully we can use that as confidence and motivation going forward."
NOTES: Columbus forward Boone Jenner took a puck to the mouth early in the first period on a shot by teammate David Savard and left the game. Jenner returned in the second wearing a full face shield. ... Blue Jackets goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 35 of 38 shots in the loss.